'Arrival' Screenwriter on Next Superhero Movie Universe and What Comics Can Teach Studios About Diversity

"This is what I want to be doing for the next five years of my life," Eric Heisserer says.
Raul Allen/Valiant Entertainment

This June's Secret Weapons will bring Arrival screenwriter Eric Heisserer to comics, with the Academy Award-nominated writer penning a four-issue series about those with superpowers that might not lend themselves to the person becoming a superhero just yet.

The series, published by Valiant Entertainment with art by Raul Allen, focuses on Amanda McKee, aka Livewire — a former superhero who devotes herself to helping others with powers when they find out that someone (or something) is hunting them down.

Heisserer is busier than ever, also working on bringing Valiant's Bloodshot and Harbinger properties to the big screen for Sony.

"Comic books allow you to have a diverse melting point of faces — you can see that in Secret Weapons with the cast in there, led by a very emotionally strong black woman," he tells Heat Vision. "These are stories that, I think, can thrive as comic books first and maybe then the studios can take a chance on them."

Heisserer also speaks about what it's been like switching mediums to tell this story, revealing he may be prioritizing comics over screenwriting for the next few years.

Livewire's been around in Valiant's comic book universe for a while, but she's traditionally been a team player — literally in the case of the Unity series she appeared in for two years. What is it about her that made you think, 'now is the right time for her to get the spotlight?

Heisserer: She has so much heart. That's what drew me to her: the way that she feels about the world, and therefore the way I feel about her because of it.

Livewire is a character that has not exactly a complex history per se, but definitely an emotionally heavy one. She comes from the Harbinger comic book series, which you've been adapting into a movie along with Bloodshot. How much did your work on the screenplay feed into Secret Weapons and your interest in Livewire in general?

A huge amount; the more I worked on [the Harbinger screenplay], the more I really learned about Livewire as a character. We had to dial down some of the characters that play a role in the movie, so by the end of it, I didn't get to spend enough time with her. Here's a woman who started from a place of just, great respect for an ideal and a system — she comes from a place of strong discipline, all through Harada's tutelage, and to see that world crack open is a big crisis for her as a person. There are things, rules that she thinks are strong to live by, and the person who taught them to her has apparently been breaking them left and right. I think that has an effect on a person.

Even though her father figure was revealed to be a bad guy, she's still living by the code that he taught her. The one that he couldn't live up to.

Yes.

In many ways, she's still doing what she was always doing.

Yes, and she feels even more the burden of responsibility to make up for the mistakes and the sins of her former boss. She carries a greater weight in her heart and on her shoulders, realizing that she was blind to what was going on — I see this all the time in people who take on rescuer jobs. There's a documentary on the white helmets in Syria, the volunteers who are trying to save lives — they never think about the good they've done. They only think about the ones they never helped. I see that in Livewire a lot; she's always thinking, "Who did I miss?"

She personifies the approach of the series in a lot of ways — or, at least, that attitude does. The idea that everyone has worth, that everyone can contribute and shouldn't be left behind. It feels like a different approach to superhero stories, which often focus on who's the most powerful character, or oversized battles.

I keep going back to that idea time and again, the people you overlook are the ones you need the most. It's a story I constantly feel the need to tell.

Outside of Livewire, where do the various Secret Weapons characters come from? You've created an entire cast for this series.

All the characters, I consider them the Island of Misfit Toys of the superhero world. They're people who, at some point of time, are told that they don't matter, that whatever gift they have is actually useless to society.… They've been sent some pretty corrupt information at a time in their lives when they're more [receptive] to that kind of negative feedback. They start from a broken place where they don't have the self-esteem to really embrace who they are. I've seen this happen with friends, I've dealt with it on my own when I was younger — the feeling that you're not going to fit in with society. It can go a bad way with some people. It can really stay with you for far too long.

The thing that I love about Livewire is that she's someone who can see the best in people, and see exactly how strong this little group can be — as a surrogate family, not exactly as an actual "team." That's why I'm so excited about writing these people together — you can see how they, eventually, form a really solid unit.

Is this your first comic?

For Valiant yes, I've done a couple of things for Dark Horse: a cyberpunk retelling of Lone Wolf and Cub and a series based on ideas of my own called Shaper.

Is it a different experience, compared with screenwriting?

There's a greater freedom to focus on the character moments and the story moments that don't always fit in the three-act structure, or types of characters, that the studio wants for a film. Comic books allow you to have a diverse melting point of faces — you can see that in Secret Weapons with the cast in there, led by a very emotionally strong black woman. These are stories that, I think, can thrive as comic books first and maybe then the studios can take a chance on them.

In terms of actually writing the script, how are you approaching it? Obviously, there's a different level of control a writer has in a comic compared to a movie — whereas a feature has a director calling the shots, you get to tell the comic book artist: three panels on this page and the third one should be largest, this is the moment we want to emphasize. Was that how you went into it with Secret Weapons?

Writing in the first draft, it's a sense of discovery, it's a sense of finding out where I want the big moments to land. And then, I get to go back in revisions and check that those do work, or if I've found something else in the exploration of a character or a particular sequence, I can make note of that. But since working on the script for the first issue, my subsequent [scripts] actually read, I guess, more loose. Now I know I have Raul Allen as my amazing artist, and I don't want to box him in with a specific layout. I can just talk about — almost as if writing a screenplay — the action beats on the page and maybe suggest a specific panel arrangement, but I don't want to corrupt him with that [laughs] because he's amazing!

Raul is one of those artists who makes it look as if they can do anything. His work on Wrath of the Eternal Warrior wasn't just beautiful, it was so playful in terms of layouts and page mechanics. I can imagine you writing variations on, "This is what I want to happen, make it work however you want."

[Laughs] It is like that, and now I'm working on the scripts for issues 2 and 3, I'm calling out specific things like, "You know what you did in issue X of Wrath of the Eternal Warrior? Embrace something like that here." 

Has the experience of writing Secret Weapons been a positive one, overall? Has it left you wanting to write more comics?

Yes! Absolutely! In fact, when I'm writing Secret Weapons, I think, "This is what I want to be doing for the next five years of my life, and then maybe I'll do screenwriting on the side." This really is a passion of mine.



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